To the uninitiated, this large round box in front of me looks like any other normal hat box, circa 1960’s or maybe late 1950’s – somewhere in that era. It’s basically pink with black trim and its size is actually broader than most. In gold leaf, across its lid, in the finest example of calligraphy I have ever seen, is the name, sans quotes, “McAullie’s”.
Each day I see a lot of vintage items; mostly crap – but some collectible, and others highly valuable. My state initiated concurrent community service sentences with the “Thrift Shoppes of America” is not only helping clear my record of some gross misunderstandings, but this experience has also touched in me a desire for a new trade – that of ‘treasure agent’. I’ve traded in toys, rare books, some apparel – vintage and contemporary – on the internet. I recognize this box as coming from a stylish, upscale Boston clothier that went bust during the disco era. Today, their hats, gloves, scarves, purses and hose sell like gold to vintage clothing collectors and wanna-be fashionistas.
Why this box alone, empty, in this condition could easily fetch $600.00. A true find. By working the backroom, and this by far is the most advantageous aspect of this job, there are any number of places – nooks, crannies, out of the way corners, gaps between sorting counters, niches, crevices – where one can hide things until one’s shift is over. Everyone does it to some manner and degree: some as pickers for dealers who regularly frequent this establishment, others for their own collections and some for their own pockets.
There’s no surveillance system in this place: that was dismantled and pawned by an ex-employee three years ago. There’s no inventory since most of the people who work here can’t count or spell. And above all, it takes just too much time and effort. The bottom-line is the management here is hopelessly transient and lax.
This branch of the chain is nestled comfortably in an extremely poor and crime ridden neighborhood, so the corporate brass can’t even conceive that anything of any real value could ever come through this collection center.
The box is heavy: well-balanced – but heavy, like it contains a World War I military helmet, instead of a feathery hat. Since no one’s around, or even cares, I undue the satin straps and peek into my trove.
There’s a rock-hard column of sorts swathed in bubble wrap covering gauze surrounded by Styrofoam peanuts to prevent any breakage or movement. I’m thinking Japanese bronze or jade statuary; maybe a fine porcelain vase or antique glass — but as I continue to unwrap I find this is not so. In all my days —sober, drunk, drug-induced, and of course, all depending upon my biorhythmic chart – I can honestly say I never saw a real, severed human head – until today. Swimming in formaldehyde she looks all of nineteen, a brunette with striking features.
She’s a real looker with the most piercing green eyes and inviting pouty mouth; a real a baby-faced stunner.
Ingenious, but clearly someone made a big mistake…
And this is exactly what he told me hours later when I was leaving work for home with my treasure stashed in my gym bag. He was beside himself, nervous and frustrated; a simple looking portly man about fifty, five foot five with short cropped, graying brown hair, wire rim glasses and a sparse unkept facial growth. His clothes are neat but rather uninspiring, just like the man himself.
So he tells me he donated the wrong box.
I tell him he shouldn’t worry because I’m the only one who viewed its contents and I certainly wasn’t dropping a dime on anyone. In fact, I planned on keeping the head as sort of a 3-D pin-up for my living room entertainment center.
No, I don’t have a wife or girlfriend, and yes, I do live alone.
Relieved he says, “I’ll make it up to you. Return my medical specimen. Keep the hat box and as an added reward you can even take your pick of fifteen pieces of women’s intimate apparel and accessories from my collection.”
I’m intrigued and readily accept.
We walk. Not being a judgmental person, I could care less how he came into his stuff. In fact, I‘m the kind of guy whose creed is to never impose my biases and preconceived prejudices on another.
We progress right to his walk-up, some eight blocks south. And what a fine, grayish brown three floor brick walk-up it is. I venture to guess 1910 but he politely corrects me to say this row of sixteen was erected in 1881.
It’s a quiet neighborhood, even though many of the natives are sitting on stoops and milling around. These denizens appear to be older than the 19th century architecture itself.
It figures that on a warm day that we’re climbing to the inevitable top floor. My new friend begins explaining: “This apartment actually belonged to my parents. And it was my father’s parents’ before them. I’m fortunate that a glorious little thing called rent control coupled with the ease in filling out a certificate of demise allows me to retain my family home and house my vast collection of “Femininalia”.
My guess is he’s unmarried and unattached as well.
Oh what a spacious and well-appointed design marvel opens up before me. As I cross the threshold, I’m stepping back in time to the height of the Victorian era. Everything in sight –all of the furniture, fixtures, glass, china, all of the rugs, doilies, antimacassars and rows upon rows of books and periodicals – is authentically from that era.
As I take my host’s tour from the foyer through the living room and down the hall, I’m more and more impressed with the architecture – the carved moldings, the frescoed ceilings, the marbled fireplaces and crystal chandeliers – until we enter the first bedroom. All four walls are hidden behind barrister cases, lined up perfectly from floor to ceiling, even blocking the windows – wherever they may be. And each and every case is packed with jars – the same cylinder jars as the one from the hat box. Moving closer, I make out heads, hands, feet, patches of flesh with tattoos – some ornate and some simply cute. None of the faces I can see have the slightest wrinkle; most are strikingly pretty in some way or innocently angelic. In all, I’d say the sum of these parts would make up about forty young women.
I feel the color draining from my body, but I can’t turn to face him. I’m so mesmerized by the tantalizing museum in front of me.
Scratchy, crackling noises start; must be from that old victrola in the living room. He’s left me alone and I didn’t notice. The music ratchets up, ‘You’ve got the cutest little baby face…’
“I’ve used their bones to make birdhouses. Those are in the next room. And in the next room after that, I’ve created some couture fashions out of their skins – and a few lampshades too.”
Again, I’m not one prone to making judgments – but now I’m having some difficulty.
“Let me offer you a brandy. Don’t worry,” he chuckles, “it is store bought and not a bodily fluid.”
With that, I blindly reach back, still staring forward. It was then he brought the hatchet down across and through my wrist, severing my hand. And as I lay on the linoleum floor – yes linoleum in a Victorian – bleeding I could vaguely make out his form standing over me, screaming “I have a disease! I have a disease! I have a disease!” as he smashes my skull in.
By Joseph J. Patchen